By Lesley Weidenbener
INDIANAPOLIS – It was one of those moments when you could just feel everyone in the room stop tapping on their phones or clicking at their laptops and look up – even though you didn’t actually see them do it.
You couldn’t have seen it. You were looking up too. Right at Gov. Mike Pence as he built up to what would be a shocker in the middle of his speech at the Indiana Legislative Conference. He was talking about the Center for Education and Career Innovation, an agency he created in part to staff the State Board of Education and take over some duties from the education department.
He commended the “talented men and women working there.”
“But,” he said, “I am aware of the controversy that has surrounded the center since its creation. I’m also aware that we have too many entities with overlapping responsibilities in public education in Indiana.”
And that’s what got everyone’s attention. For a split second, it seemed like he might be proposing to eliminate the Department of Education or get rid of the superintendent of public instruction as an elected position.
“For education to work in our state, it has to work at the highest levels, and someone needs to take the first step to restore harmony and trust in education,” Pence said instead. “In that spirit, later today, I will sign an executive order to dissolve the Center for Education and Career Innovation.”
What? That was the last thing most in the audience were expecting. After all, Pence and his staff seemed to have put so much time and energy into the agency they called CECI, which from the outset appeared to simply add a layer of government to the education system without a terribly clear mission.
And just the day before, the education board and Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, had been engaged in another of their tense meetings – with the staff of CECI right in the middle of things. Who knew that just 24 hours later, Pence would get rid of the agency that has helped to drive a wedge between Ritz and the board members the governor appoints?
But as shocking as the announcement seemed in the moment, it’s not so hard to see it coming in hindsight.
First, Pence followed up the announcement with news that he would push lawmakers to let the Board of Education vote in its own chairman. State law now mandates that the superintendent be the chair. So while the governor was offering to eliminate an agency that had been usurping power from the Department of Education, he was also seeking to weaken the state superintendent. And for the latter, Pence is much more likely to find a willing audience in the General Assembly if it seems he’s been willing to give something up as well.
And the legislative reaction was interesting too. The Republican leaders of the General Assembly have never seemed that happy with CECI. They could have ordered Pence to nix it and didn’t. Still, they’ve been careful to say that both sides are to blame for the tensions between the board and the superintendent. And after Pence’s announcement came on Thursday, House Speaker Brian Bosma said he’s “especially appreciative” of the move.
And even State Board of Education members, who are staffed by the agency, have not always seemed thrilled with it. CECI made it nearly impossible to know who answered to whom in education. For example, the agency staff answered to both the board and the governor. And sometimes, when Ritz told board members she had talked to the governor or to the agency staff about an issue, they would implore her to talk directly to them.
So eliminating CECI might not be so much an admission by Pence that it was wrong to create the agency as it was a strategic move to get other things he wants. And not much may change anyway. The education board is not likely to go back to having Ritz’s Department of Education serve as its staff. Instead, members will either hire an outside group to serve as it staff or create their own little agency.
What will be interesting is to see how removing the governor from the picture might improve relations between Ritz and the board. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine it will make a big difference, but Pence’s move to eliminate CECI was hard to fathom too.
Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.